The early departures of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry from the presidential race have, for many pundits, spotlighted the limitations of the unlimited funds available in campaign Super PACs. Both Walker and Perry raised impressive sums for their Super Pacs, but fell short of the hard campaign dollars they needed to sustain a national campaign.
Together, Super PACs for Walker and Perry raised $43 million through June to support their candidacies. Much of this money remains unspent and, with the candidates’ departures from the race, will likely be returned to donors. Former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who is always ready to provide a quote criticizing Republicans, tells Politico:
[I]t’s healthy because super PACs alone should not keep candidates in the race if they can’t stay in by themselves. There is something democratic about grass-roots, widespread money support. There is something anti-democratic about one person propping up a candidate who can’t make it.
Fleischer, as Politico notes, was part of an RNC-sanctioned audit team that reviewed the 2012 election debacle and concluded, in part, “rich donors could use super PACs to prop up weak candidates in primary elections.”
Upcoming FEC reports will shed more light on fundraising by the Walker and Perry campaigns and, perhaps more importantly, how much they spent in the few weeks that their campaigns were active. Having millions in a Super PAC, which in the last election were used for paid advertising, can’t compensate for a campaign that can’t pay staff or field the army of workers a modern campaign needs.
For those items, a campaign has relied on “hard dollars” donated to an individual campaign. These donations are bound by strict FEC limits and regulations. A serious, nationwide campaign needs at least $1 million a month in these limited donations just to keep the lights on.
Jeb Bush, however, is exploring a new model, one that relies far more heavily on Super PACs than other campaigns. Bush captured headlines in July with the eye-popping report that his Super PAC, Right to Rise, had raised more than $100 million in the first half of the year.
This figure obviously sucked up all the media oxygen and obscured the fact that his actual campaign had only raised $11 million in that time period. In hard dollars, it was less than Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton or, even, Bernie Sanders raised.
Bush, it seems, even put off his formal entrance into the presidential race to maximize the amount of time he could raise money for the Super PAC and, most importantly, coordinate with its efforts. According to FEC rules, an official candidate and his actual campaign can’t coordinate any activities with a Super PAC supporting this efforts. It has to exist, legally, almost in a parallel universe acting on its own direction and strategy.
Until the point he formally announced, however, Bush could work with the Super PAC. The top advisor for Bush’s Super PAC, Mike Murphy, even let slip on a conference call that they had filmed hours of footage and interviews with Bush before his announcement that can be used in future advertising.
[W]e actually were able to do some filming before the wall went down, so we can do excellent creative. We have some incredible stuff in the can that we shot with the governor. So we’re going to be able to — starting with digital, but expanding to advertising — start to tell that story.
One of the neat things about Right to Rise…is we’re going to be the first Super PAC to really be able to do just positive advertising, to tell his story, which is the missing ingredient right now
Murphy also revealed that the Super PAC would be making targeted buys to support Bush’s campaign activities:
[W]e’re going to do a few frugal, highly targeted things to help boost the governor’s narrative over the summer, to support his travels.
Bush’s late entry into the race provided a valuable window where his campaign could discuss the upcoming race with the Super PAC.
“I think the way they’ve designed the campaign is the wave of the future,” Charlie Black, a longtime lobbyist in Washington told Politico. “It’s a new model.”
Mother Jones, a left-wing magazine, has questioned whether these discussions might have violated FEC guidelines, but it is certainly not coming to the question from an objective point of view.
The larger question is how much of Bush’s campaign plan is dependent on the activities of the Super PAC. Right to Rise has already booked over $11 million in TV advertising in New Hampshire over the next several weeks in a bid to boost Bush’s campaign in the first primary state.
Early this year, the Associated Press reported on Bush plans to run most of the traditional campaign activities through the Super PAC:
Right to Rise could also break into new areas for a candidate-specific super PAC, such as data gathering, highly individualized online advertising and running phone banks. Also on the table is tasking the super PAC with crucial campaign endgame strategies: the operation to get out the vote and efforts to maximize absentee and early voting on Bush’s behalf.
The Bush campaign itself would mostly handle the candidate’s travel and expenses directly associated with him, leaving the rest to the deep-pocketed Right to Rise. The AP reported:
In theory, that means a small group of wealthy Bush supporters could pay for much of the work of electing him by writing massive checks to the super PAC. Bush would begin a White House bid with confidence that he will have the money behind him to make a deep run into the primaries, even if he should stumble early and spook small-dollar donors, starving his own campaign of the money it needs to carry on.
The Bush campaign certainly has had its share of early stumbles. At the end of August, it was reported that three of the top fundraisers for the Bush campaign were leaving. Little noticed, however, was the news that, although the fundraisers were leaving the campaign, they were still working for the Super PAC. One Bush insider explained that they were simply let go because “they were no longer needed for the current phase of the campaign.”
In the case of Walker and Perry, it may simply be the case that they hadn’t sufficiently exploited the potential of Super PACs as the Bush campaign is doing. Despite what Fleischer says, it seems it is entirely possible for a handful of wealthy donors to prop-up a campaign that isn’t igniting regular voters. Like Bush, though, they just have to get very creative about how they do it.